A tale of two city-spies

Updated: Sep 25, 2019, 07:46 IST | Mayank Shekhar |

Two desi espionage-thrillers; almost simultaneously dropping on Amazon, Netflix; 12-plus hours of back-to-back binge... And?

(Left) Emraan Hashmi in a still from the Netflix show, Bard Of Blood; Manoj Bajpayee in the Amazon Prime show, Family Man
(Left) Emraan Hashmi in a still from the Netflix show, Bard Of Blood; Manoj Bajpayee in the Amazon Prime show, Family Man

Mayank ShekharFrom an optics point of view, a family man, as it were, shakily performing a work-life balancing-act — 'kaam ke bojh ka maara' type — is obviously the polar opposite of Super/Spiderman sorta super-hero.

The latter in turn have their own human alter-egos as well — with journalism as their day-jobs, in both cases — to contrast with their larger mission of saving the world, no less.

This works so well to frame a larger-than-life story, within a life-like empathy for the men with unreal superpowers, on board.

And yet, those who find James Cameron's True Lies (1994) as take-off point for Raj&DK's (Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK's) fascinating spy-thriller series, Family Man (that dropped on Amazon Prime this week), only have to rewatch super-hero Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'Salman ka cinematic baap' kinda over-the-top stuff, to compare against the adorable realism of Manoj Bajpayee as the middle-class babu/bureaucrat, who works as an extraordinarily fearless spy, when wife (brilliantly played by Priyamani), and kids, aren't looking.

There's much to be said about Raj&DK as writer-directors, deeply inspired by both American indie and commercial cinema, who for the past decade or so, without calling much attention to themselves, have smartly subverted one genre after another — zombie (Go Goa Gone), crime (Shor In The City), horror (Stree), to romantic-comedy (Happy Ending) — attracting top movie-stars (Saif Ali Khan, Rajkummar Rao, Shradha Kapoor, Govinda, et al), operating within the Bollywood mainstream —having quietly scripted a filmography more wholesome than most PR-magnets I know.

The quintessential family-man (Bajpayee, in absolute top-form) in Family Man, in another sense, is also a fine counterpoint to the sort of modern opposition a government-servant spy would be up against — a network of severely brainwashed terrorists/cells, willing to kill others, including blowing themselves up, because they apparently have so much less to lose. At a purely personal level, it's not a battle between equals. But the show, which is more and more about individuals, doesn't entirely fall for either spin (as much as that's possible). This is a huge relief.

The area under focus is Balochistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) belt, Taliban, ISI, Syria-ISIS, and Islamic terrorism, that dominate international-news — perceived among many (unsure, if exaggeratedly so) as the globe's most serious ticking-bomb.

As is, for the most part, the case with Ribhu Dasgupta's espionage-thriller Bard Of Blood (that drops on Netflix this week). So were certain portions of Netflix's Sacred Games 2 (that dropped last month). From a web-series POV, the visual template might well be the spy-drama Homeland Season 4 (2014); my favourite, after the first season (of course) — only perhaps because they got to Ground Zero before? But the perspective there (like most of global pop-culture) was wholly American.

Like Family Man (that's seven hours' plus, over ten episodes), Bard Of Blood (five hours' plus) — also aimed at a global audience; being on Amazon, Netflix — shines a light on the Af-Pak spy-scene, from a totally Indian lens. Given the key characters involved. I binged the hell out of both. Almost back-to-back. Over 12 hours straight. And? The fact that I could, says a lot about the shows already (never mind an inherently addictive personality!).

Bard Of Blood, starring the supremely under-stated Emraan Hashmi, Vineet Kumar, Shobhita Dhulipala, along with a superb ensemble (in particular, Jaideep Ahlawat, Kirti Kulhari) is equally brilliantly cast. The stunning camera-work/production-design that draw you in first are nothing short of world-class (true for Family Man as well).

But, frankly, as a premise, or the starting-point itself, Bard Of Blood — about three totally unhinged spies, with no backing whatsoever, and much less back-story; who have, for all practical purposes, gone rogue, and are about to single-handedly crack a massive rescue mission, besides blow up construction sites in parts where national armies will find hard to survive for too long — is not a patch on Family Man, which is way less Rambo-like, and obviously far more relatable.

That said, of course, comparisons are always fair. Although within the same broad space, they're two different shows. And as the hardcore Bollywood star Hashmi, making his web-debut, tells me, "When I first read the [Bilal Siddiqui] book [of the same name, that Bard Of Blood is adapted from], I couldn't imagine how it could ever be made into a (Bollywood) movie. For one, there would be at least four songs; (and since I'm there), Sufi songs… (Going further by his popular image), kissing scenes... Inevitably it would descend towards [crowd-pleasing] jingoism."

We know what he's talking about. This is none of that. Viewing it from the city/film-industry it's emanating from, and for the completely neglected genre it strongly surveys, that's already a huge leap. And there's more of course.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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